The comeback of caudillos in Latin America

By Alba Léon

It is becoming apparent that the liberal democratic ideal is having a hard time, all around the world. In many countries, governments have become synonymous with their charismatic rulers. From Russia to the Philippines, from Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to Venezuela’s Maduro, these strong men have promised that their strength will move the national economy forward, thereby outgrowing the problems that plagued their countries under previous democratic regimes. 

Latin America has had its fair share of caudillos, strong military men who would eventually become political leaders by acclamation, often ruling with an iron fist. Arguably, the time of most caudillos in Latin America ended with the military dictatorships in the late 1980s – with the exception of Cuba. But, the past few years have shown how even in the most prosperous countries in the region, with the most advanced democratic systems, strong men are taking advantage of democratic means to gain power.

Take Mexico as an example. After the what Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa called ‘Perfect Dictatorship’ ended in 2000, Mexico’s promise of a better future never truly materialized. The country’s ruling party since the 1940, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was replaced by the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in a sweeping election victory that clearly shows how much Mexicans wanted change. Instead, through subsequent alternative party governments, the country ended up in a cruel and deadly war between rival drug cartels and the government. In 2012, in a close election, PRI regained the presidential seat. Their victory would be short lived, as on 1 December 2018 the left-wing candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador, running a campaign on reducing corruption, crime and poverty, will become Mexico’s newest president after a landslide electoral win.

The opposite seems to be happening in Brazil, where a former military man and federal congress member, Jair Bolsonaro, is poised to win the second round elections and become the country’s new leader. His competitor on the left, Fernando Haddad from the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Labour Party), has neither the charisma nor the message that people want to hear: that he is the only one that can make the outburst of violence in Brazil go away, by any means necessary. The recent attack on Bolsonaro’s life, which he barely survived, has only strengthened his message.


Obrador in Mexico and Bolsonaro in Brazil are only two of the latest examples of the renewed wave of strongman rule that seems to be taking the world by storm. For both Mexicans and Brazilians, the rule of law is well respected, but their countries are beyond salvation with regards to their democratic and legal means. That is why, while different in style and message, the idea that there is a tough man who will fight corruption (López Obrador) and violence (Bolsonaro) becomes more appealing to voters.

Many voters are desperately looking for a long-term solution, even if that means having a president who openly speaks with disgust about gay people and has pronounced himself in favour of the old military dictatorship, or one who purports to be free from corruption but who has formed a cabinet that includes many politicians from the nation’s party that is notorious for their corruption.
What both Mexico and Brazil seem to be experiencing is a system in which institutional reform, while ongoing, runs short in comparison to the social and economic needs. Both countries have accomplished judicial, economic and electoral reforms that modernized and improved institutions to better fit with international and national needs and demands. However, this institutional apparatus does not seem to be addressing the core problems that the population faces, at least not enough.

Exogenous factors, such as economic crises, migration, instability in the region, have certainly not helped to improve the issues that are at stake. The internal conflict in Venezuela has resulted in fear along the northern Brazilian border. And in Mexico, the Trump administration is playing the proverbial Goliath, resembling the perceptions Mexicans have of Mexico-US relations.

To be sure, these popular, and one could even venture to call them populist, candidates did not come out of nowhere. The grievances are real, and the economic and social situation in parts of Mexico and Brazil is dire. Violence has become the new normal in many areas of both countries, while purchasing power continues to diminish and inflation makes basic commodities such as gasoline and food unaffordable to many. 

However, the question remains whether these strongmen, these modern-day caudillos, will be the ones to fix them, in stark contrast to their technocratic, grey and amiable predecessors. According to Mario Vargas Llosa, it has worked in the past, to an extent. Only time can tell whether it is going to work in the future.


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